p-PHL2894You may have heard about El Niño in the news recently.

It’s been claimed that this global weather phenomenon could lead to a prolonged freezing winter in the UK – more sensationalist headlines than fact.

It’s also been reported that El Niño could have been behind Hurricane Patricia – the biggest storm ever recorded in the western hemisphere – that hit Mexico at the weekend.

One thing is for sure. An El Niño event is well underway and it could have significant repercussions for communities across the world, particularly those in developing countries.

©AnaRombero/SpanishRedCross

©AnaRombero/SpanishRedCross

What is an El Niño?

An El Niño forms every two to seven years, usually between March and June.

It occurs when the surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean become much warmer than average.

This ocean warming lasts about one year and sets in motion a complex cycle of events linking atmosphere and ocean.

As sea temperatures rise, a huge amount of heat is released into the atmosphere – this can disrupt weather patterns across the world.

It is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, fishermen in Peru and Ecuador have long known about El Niño.

Fish in the coastal waters off these countries would disappear around Christmas time due to the warmer water, leading the fishermen to name the phenomenon El Niño – ‘the Christ child’.

But that’s not to say the effects of El Niño are confined to South America; it’s very much a global event.

So how will this affect the weather?

Each El Niño is different, but it can make certain weather patterns more likely. This year’s El Niño is predicted to be one of the strongest on record.

This map from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society highlights how El Niño has historically affected weather patterns across the world.El-Nino-map

Why does El Niño matter?  

El Niño will put people’s lives, livelihoods and health at risk, particularly in communities that already rely on aid.

Floods, droughts, epidemics – some of the possible negative consequences of El Niño.

Put simply, it means more people will probably need humanitarian aid in the coming months.

That said, El Niño also brings with it positive outcomes. Wetter weather can be good for crops. Drier conditions also mean that malaria and other waterborne diseases are less of a threat.

©JonathanKalan/IFRC

©JonathanKalan/IFRC

Which countries are going to be worst affected? 

It’s hard to say for certain. But there are several areas that are of particular concern due to existing humanitarian crises.

The wetter conditions in the Horn of Africa could provide a boost to farmers and crop yields, but excessive rainfall has already seen flooding in parts of Somalia.

“More than 800,000 people could be affected by the El Niño phenomenon in Somalia,” said Julia Albert-Recht, part of our East and Southern Africa team.

“Severe flooding may force people to leave their homes and result in diseases and food shortages. The greatest danger is the potential loss of crops and livelihoods.”

©JakobDall/DanishRedCross

©JakobDall/DanishRedCross

The UN estimates that around 15 million people in Ethiopia will need food aid at the start of next year as a result of El Niño – nearly double the current number in need of help.

In the Sahel – an area of West Africa suffering from acute food shortages brought about by erratic weather, chronic droughts, conflict and displacement – El Niño could further worsen the crisis.

The consequences of the delayed rainy season in the Sahel, attributed to El Niño, will only become clear in the coming months.

©SuomenPunainenRisti/FinnishRedCross

©SuomenPunainenRisti/FinnishRedCross

Across the Asia and Pacific region, the effects of El Niño are currently being felt and will continue into next year.

“The drier than normal conditions are causing major challenges with crop failure and food insecurity, particularly in Pacific countries,” said Stephen Cox, from our Asia team.

“This can have severe knock-on effects in countries with low-income households that rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

“The increased uncertainty of typhoons also poses severe challenges in predicting where they will make landfall, and therefore which communities to evacuate and to what extent.”

©IFRC

©IFRC

So what is the Red Cross doing to help people?

It is challenging to prepare for El Niño as by its very nature it makes weather patterns more unpredictable.

It’s important to monitor it closely and have plans in place to deal with any negative fallout and to make the post of any positive conditions.

For example, Kenya is likely to experience heavier rains between October and December, which could lead to severe flooding in some areas, but bring benefits in other regions.

The Kenya Red Cross has drawn up a plan to prepare for El Niño. Dfid has made a £200,000 donation to support the work.

©MariAftretMørtvedt/Norwegian Red Cross

©MariAftretMørtvedt/Norwegian Red Cross

The plan looks at each possible scenario and how they can support people.

So they are prepared for possible epidemics, loss of livelihoods and displacement. Elsewhere, they have distributed seeds to take advantage of the potential for better harvests.